Raffi's time to shine

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

Which Raffi Torres will show up this season?

Will it be the Torres who came on like gangbusters in his first full NHL campaign with the Oilers in 2003-04, scoring 20 goals and exceeding expectations he'd break in as a grinder on the fourth line?

Or will it be the Torres of last season, one in which the rambunctious redhead from Toronto started like a house on fire with the Road Runners of the AHL during the NHL lockout, only to fizzle down the stretch like he was draped in a wet blanket instead of No. 14?

After inking Torres to a two-year contract yesterday that will pay him $825,000 this season and $925,000 the next, the Oilers are banking on the former. So is coach Craig MacTavish, who has seen both sides of the robust, but inconsistent, left- winger.

TOP SIX

In fact, MacTavish is counting, in no uncertain terms, on Torres lining up on the left side behind Ryan Smyth - but ahead of Ethan Moreau and Brad Winchester - when the puck drops Oct. 5 against Colorado.

That's top six.

Call it a vote of confidence.

"He was a big part of our team. He had a great year," MacTavish said of 2003-04. "We expect that out of him, and a little more. We have very high expectations for him.

"I think he's a lock there. We need what he brings. If he didn't play there, I'd be very surprised, and extremely disappointed."

Torres, 23, ascended to duty as one of MacTavish's top six forwards two seasons ago on the way to tidy totals of 20-14-34 by busting to the net and crashing and banging. He buried opposing wingers and pucks.

Most nights, he was everything the Oilers hoped he'd be when they acquired Torres, the New York Islanders first-round pick in 2000, and Brad Isbister for Janne Niinimaa in March 2003.

"I'm definitely up for that. I'm ready go," Torres said yesterday. "I'm thinking the exact same way. I'm expecting big things out of myself.

"The last thing I want to do is let down a team that gave me my first real chance in the NHL. I'm going to do whatever it takes to make sure I'm up for every challenge."

After inking an AHL deal weeks into the lockout, Torres picked up where he left off, scoring 12 goals in his first 20 games for the Road Runners, only to struggle mightily the rest of the season, en route to notching just nine more goals in the next 47 games.

STREAKY

"He's a bit of a streaky scorer, but he's pushed the door open since when he came in," said assistant GM Scott Howson.

"He exceeded our expectations and opened the door to playing a more prominent role."

There were times late last season with the Road Runners lurching headlong into the tank that Torres was painfully ineffective.

The saving grace is that Raffi is the first to tell you so.

Some guys don't know when they stink. Plugged nostrils aren't an issue with Torres. If his game doesn't pass the smell test, he's the first to mention the aroma.

"Slumps are part of the game, but you have to be able to bounce back," Torres said.

"You have to be professional and do whatever it takes to work out of it and get back on track."

Clearly, indifference isn't an issue. Consistency and confidence are. That's the challenge for Torres going into camp.

"It's never a lack of caring with Raffi," Howson said.

"At times, it's a matter of trying to figure out what his game is. He worked hard to get his game back and, hopefully, he can draw on that experience. For young players, the road isn't always smooth. There's going to be some bumps."

The lockout year certainly qualified as that.

"He has a lot of dimensions," MacTavish said. "He's a young player and there's a lot there. The important thing is he's willing to work.

"He's a hard-working guy and a good character kid."


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